Archive: A Reflection on the Annual CFDA Awards

Let’s get one thing straight. The annual Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards is not about designers. How do we know? Well, take Joseph Altuzarra, for instance. He is one of the designers in the pool of designers that is nominated every year. This year, he won the biggest award of the evening – Womenswear Designer of the Year – and yet, he was overshadowed. He and nearly every other designer in attendance at the CFDA Awards, save for maybe Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (who are similarly nominated every single year), were overshadowed by Hollywood, but it was not for nothing (for lack of a more grammatically correct phrase).

Yes, designers were overshadowed by Rihanna, by Solange, by Lupita, by Blake Lively, by the industry's attempt to take the CFDA Awards to the next level, but the underlying goal is arguably a noble one and so, it is worthy of discussion.

Monday night's awards ceremony is "both a financial and marketing imperative" for the CFDA, as the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman put it. Yes, the CFDA Awards is about the CFDA. It is an opportunity to raise awareness, to gain marketing buzz, to align itself with powerful industry players, and to gain prestige. This is why the New York-based organization aligns itself with the most profitable, most buzz-worthy, most famous designers, and nominates them for the same awards every year (as opposed to maybe … branching out and taking a chance on other designers that also need the exposure).

Friedman makes another good point: "It is in the interests of the nominated designers to bring a celebrity, who will then get photographed on the red carpet and hence garner them, and by association, the CFDA and American fashion, lots of associated publicity."And Rihanna certainly ensured maximum publicity on Monday night. She is nothing if not influential and so, she had a significant segment of the population watching. Awaiting her arrival. Awaiting tweets about who designed her sheer gown and about what she would say in her acceptance speech. 

However, in the midst of a Rihanna-induced frenzy (think: a truly enormous amount of tweets, of publications allotting the front page and the significant amount of their reporting on the event to Rihanna, of slideshows of the Style Icon winner, of articles dissecting Rihanna and Anna Wintour's friendship, etc.), it was likely rather difficult for those not "in fashion" and/or not in attendance (the event was not televised or available via live stream) to discern what the night was actually about. But before I go any further, please let me state that this is not about singling out Rihanna or putting down celebrities. More importantly, this is also not about putting down the CFDA or the industry. In fact, it is just the opposite.

By packing the red carpet with big name celebrities (by way of making them presenters and giving them awards), the CFDA broadened the appeal of the evening and ensured widespread media attention (which is positive!). But if we are being objective, in a way, it simultaneously shifted the focus from the vast majority of those individuals being honored to those that are the biggest stars. Case in point: The headlines dedicated to covering the event: "CFDA Awards Best Dressed — Rihanna, Blake Lively & More", "Rihanna Embraces the Nude Look at the CFDAs", "Rihanna Is Old Hollywood Meets Badass at The CFDA Awards", "Solange Knowles & Rachel Roy Face Off at CFDA Awards", "Rihanna goes nearly nude at CFDA Awards", you get where I'm going with this. Few and far between are the "Joseph Altuzarra Awarded CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year" and "CFDA Awards 2014: Winners Include The Row, Joseph Altuzarra" headlines.

While the media spotlight may not be on the designers, I believe that the CFDA's intentions are good. I believe the relatively small NYC-based not-for-profit trade association wants to celebrate designers even if it is more often than not only a small handful of group of its favorites (think: the Olsens or Marc Jacobs or Public School or Proenza Schouler or Irene Neuwirth). Despite such honorable intentions, the focus of fashion has shifted a lot since Vogue started putting celebrities on its covers in the late 1980's.

However, the reality is this: For those among us, who believe that fashion is in and of itself an industry worth celebrating based on its own merits (and not those of Hollywood), this is a bit of a frustrating predicament. (As is the utter lack of diversity in terms of the nominees). 

In the same vein, though, the public at large, including the press, has come to expect and lust after celebrities, and as a result, the public is just not as interested in even some of the biggest name designers who won awards on Monday evening. In fact, they don't even know about some of the designers. As I mentioned yesterday, the evening's biggest award winner, Joseph Altuzarra, is not exactly on many people's radar that are situated outside of fashion's inner circle. In this way, we really have to give it to the CFDA for creating an event that garners such widespread attention.

While industry insiders and truly devoted fashion fans know (or at least can appreciate by close observation) the value inherent in a young brand that manufactures locally, uses the finest materials and/or incorporates an original aesthetic, the general public does not. They need Rihanna, or Blake Lively, or Lupita to wear a dress by a designer that is not Gucci or Louis Vuitton in order to make it relevant or interesting or "fashionable" to them. As such, there is a valid argument that it is in the designers' best interests that Hollywood stars show up, wear their designs, get photographed and cause a media frenzy.

This is valuable exposure, and there is a very good chance that a fan or two or ten of these celebrities will now be a life-long fashion fan. But it would be nice to see the CFDA being a little less cliquey. How many times do the Olsens or Marc Jacobs or Public School or Proenza Schouler or Irene Neuwirth really need to be nominated?

*This article was initially published on June 4, 2014.